From kindergarten onward we are taught to share, be polite and take turns. As adult drivers, we naturally apply these lessons by stopping and signaling another driver or a pedestrian to enter or cross the street. However, this common courtesy has the potential to render you liable for damages if the person signaled is involved in an accident.
Consider, for example, a four lane road with two lanes of traffic moving in each direction and driveways entering from the side. Suppose that you are driving in the right hand lane moving north. You see a pedestrian attempting to cross the road from the sidewalk on you right, stop you car and wave to the pedestrian, motioning her to cross in front of your vehicle. The pedestrian crosses your lane of traffic but is then hit by a car traveling in the same direction as yours in the lane immediately to your left. The pedestrian later sues you, alleging that your negligence in signaling her to cross without verifying that the left hand lane was clear helped cause the accident. Are you liable?
“Of course not,” you say. “My signal only meant that it was safe to cross my lane of traffic, not that the entire highway was safe.” You also note that the pedestrian was an adult, not a child to whom you might owe a greater obligation. The Massachusetts courts, however, have rejected these defenses. While age is a factor to be considered, an adult is not necessarily barred from recovering damages. Gennelly v. Leslie, 17 Mass. L. Rptr. 120, 2003 WL 23016092, *1-2 (Mass. Super. 11/24/03). Nor is a signal to cross always to be interpreted as saying only “I won’t hit you.” A court will consider the particular nature of the signal and the circumstances in which it was given. Woods v. O’Neil, 54 Mass. App. Ct. 768, 774 (2002). Whether a defendant’s signal to cross was negligent will usually be a fact question to be decided by the jury. Id.
The liability of a driver who signals others into traffic depends on a number of factors, including, but not limited to: the age of the person signaled; whether the signaling driver was positioned so as to block the signaled person’s view of the road; the nature of the signal given; and whether the signaled person relied on the signal by crossing immediately. Woods, 54 Mass. App. Ct. at 775. Also important is whether that reliance was reasonable. For example, the signaled person could not reasonably interpret the signal as indicating that the entire road was clear to cross if the signaling driver was not in a position from which he could have seen all parts of the road. A negligently given signal is most likely to lead to liability where the signaling driver had a better view of the road than the signaled person.
Courts imposing liability on drivers for negligently given signals often base their decisions on the general rule that one who voluntarily renders a service to another which he should know is necessary to protect that other person from harm (in this case the service of checking the safety of the road and advising the other of when it is safe to cross) can be held liable for negligence in rendering that service if the other person is injured.
Does this mean you should never signal anyone to cross or enter a road in front of your vehicle? Of course not. In many situations such cooperation is essential if traffic is to continue moving at all. But by signaling you take on a responsibility to the signaled person. You should be aware of other traffic on the road that might pose a threat to the person you intend to signal before or after they have passed in front of your car. That person’s life may be in your hands.